114th U.S. Open Championship Preview
06/06/2014 5:19 PM
06/06/2014 5:25 PM
Much of the lead-up to this year's championship will be about this being the 15th anniversary of Payne Stewart's victory at Pinehurst. Stewart was tragically killed just over four months later in a plane crash.
Stewart's indelible fist-pump celebration is marked by a statue at the course. Many people remember that, and they also remember the way he grabbed runner-up Phil Mickelson by the face afterwards.
"You're going to be a father!" Stewart shouted to Mickelson. The left-hander had vowed to walk off the course during the final round if his wife, Amy, went into labor with their first child.
Stewart, in a way, was telling Mickelson don't worry about this loss, you have a bigger win coming when that child is born. And she was born the next day.
Fourteen years, and five more runner-up finishes later, Mickelson is still seeking his first U.S. Open Championship. Mickelson, who hasn't had a top-10 finish on the PGA Tour this season, finished second last year for the sixth time as Justin Rose pulled away late to win his first major championship title at Merion.
Rose has had some Mickelson-like heartbreak. As an 18-year-old amateur, Rose contended at the British Open, eventually finishing as the low amateur. He tied for fourth that week, and ended two strokes out of the playoff.
Since winning at Merion last year, Rose has racked up 10 worldwide top-10 finishes. He missed the cut at the British Open, then shared 33rd at the PGA Championship. Earlier this year, Rose tied for 14th at the Masters. He is still searching for his first victory since earning his first major title last year.
Rose was ranked fifth in the world entering last year's U.S. Open, and those rankings look mighty different than they did at this time last year. Tiger Woods was No. 1 followed by Rory McIlroy, Adam Scott, Matt Kuchar and Rose.
This year, Scott is followed by Henrik Stenson, Bubba Watson, Woods and Kuchar.
Scott has five top-10 finishes in nine starts this year. Stenson won the season-ending tournament on both the PGA and European Tours last year, but is winless since. Watson won his second Masters title earlier this year, while Woods is out recovering from back surgery. Kuchar won the Heritage earlier this year, but is still looking for his first major championship title.
Woods is missing his second straight major. This marks the second time in four years, and the third time in the last seven years, that Woods has missed back- to-back majors. Woods being out is big for the remainder of the field. He tied for third behind Stewart in 1999 and was runner-up to Michael Campbell in 2005 at Pinehurst.
Campbell is also out this week as he is coming back from an ankle injury that has held him to two starts in 2014. He missed the cut in one and withdrew from the other event.
So what should we expect this week at Pinehurst No. 2?
The potential is there to have a Dustin Johnson-like situation at Whistling Straits, as there is plenty of sand on the course. The rough is sandy based soil with underbrush type grass that grows unevenly. Players might get a perfect lie or be stuck in a clump of grass and have virtually no shot.
It will be tough to see someone who contended in 2005 or 1999 contending again this week because there is such a small number of those players. Sergio Garcia is the only player that finished in the top-10 in 2005 that is competing this week.
Interestingly, the top-11 from 1999 has four players in the field this week. Mickelson headlines the group that also includes Steve Stricker, Jeff Maggert and Darren Clarke. Of those five, only Mickelson and Clarke are major champions.
Among those playing well right now are Luke Donald, Jim Furyk, Garcia, Kuchar, Rose, Scott and Jordan Spieth.
Donald has four worldwide top-5 finishes in his last five starts, but he has just one top-10 at the U.S. Open and has missed the cut in the last three majors.
Furyk has a pair of runner-up finishes in his last four starts and has shot par or better in 17 of his last 20 rounds. He won the 2003 U.S. Open and finished second in 2006 and 2007.
Garcia has seven worldwide top-10s this season, and has finished in the top-20 in 10 of his 13 starts.
Kuchar leads the PGA Tour with nine top-10 finishes in 15 starts this year. He won the Heritage and shared fifth at the Masters. Though he missed the cut in 1999 and 2005, Kuchar has made the cut at the last four U.S. Opens.
Rose has three top-10s in his last five starts, and six top-10 finishes on the season. He has made the cut in only four of his eight U.S. Open starts, but has three top-10 finishes in his four cuts made.
Scott won at Colonial and has finished inside the top-25 in eight of his nine starts this season. In 2012, he tied for 15th at the Open, and that stands as his best finish in this major. In the other three majors, Scott has at least three top-5 finishes in each. He has also finished inside the top-15 in eight of the last nine majors overall.
Spieth has been on a tear since joining the tour last year. He has tallied 13 top-20 finishes in 17 starts this season. Spieth finished second at Kapalua and Augusta, but if he is to contend this week, he'll need to put four strong rounds together.
Those are just a couple of the top competitors to look out for this week. Of course you could always see an unheralded player like Alex Cejka or Matt Jones or Casey Wittenberg making noise early in the championship.
Cejka poured in 11 birdies against no bogeys in his 36-hole qualifier. Jones earned his first PGA Tour win earlier this year at the Houston Open, while Wittenberg has two Web.com Tour wins and was the U.S. Amateur runner-up in 2003.
Or will the surprise early leader come from one of the players that made the match-play portion of the 2008 U.S. Amateur at Pinehurst. Those six who qualified for this year's Open are Kevin Tway, Rickie Fowler, Jason Millard, Scott Langley, Billy Horschel and Patrick Reed.
The traditional Father's Day finish would be an especially compelling storyline if Reed were to win. His wife gave birth to the couples' first child a few weeks ago.
Regardless of who comes out on top, that player will have beaten a strong field and even stronger course. Many want to see Mickelson break through and complete the career Grand Slam at the site of his first U.S. Open runner-up finish.
No matter who you are rooting for, Pinehurst will be another stern test for the best players in the world.
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